There is a beautiful suspension bridge about halfway along the main road from Geneva to Annecy. It is no longer used for vehicular traffic, that function being assumed by a modern replacement built a short distance away, but the bridge’s architectural distinction—delicate crenelated towers supporting graceful single-span cables—has ensured its preservation as a national monument. The bridge was built in about 1835, when Savoy was still part of the hereditary domain of the kings of Sardinia and, on first impression, appears as a tribute to their enlightenment and desire to serve the welfare of their subjects.
In fact, though, the monarchs who ruled Savoy, Piedmont, and Sardinia from their capital in Turin were among the most backward in Europe, to say nothing of Italy. Even the Bourbon rulers of Naples, even the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and even the Habsburg satraps in Lombardy and Venice seemed more progressive. Piedmont-Sardinia was hardly the kind of state associated with a great destiny, and, in the middle of the nineteenth century, hardly seemed to possess the power or the will to be able to determine the fate of others. Its population was only one-fifth that of the whole Italian peninsula, its people were disunited by language and culture; its ruling classes were ingrown, conservative, and xenophobic. Its Jews lived in ghettos, its non-Catholics were deprived of civil rights; its doctors still tried to cure fever by bleeding.
If the prospect that such a kingdom could amount to anything seemed remote, the likelihood that Camille Benso de Cavour, one of its most famous sons, might also achieve prominence appeared equally doubtful. For most of his life, until his last ten years, Cavour showed little inkling of greatness; then he exploded into action to become the driving force behind the unification of Italy. Yet, for this great endeavor he appeared curiously miscast. Denis Mack Smith, a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and a specialist in the history of modern Italy (his works include The Making of Italy, 1796-1870, 1968, an annotated collection of original sources; and one of the best general surveys on the subject, Italy: A Modern History, 1969), reveals in this fine biography that Cavour was not much of an Italian nationalist. Cavour was Piedmontese and grew up speaking the local northern dialect and French, the language of his mother. Not until age twenty did he make any serious effort to learn Italian, and, even then, and for the rest of his life, he spoke it as if he would rather be speaking something else. His concept of an Italian nation was parochial and, as Mack Smith reveals, most likely did not extend beyond those northern territories that had comprised Napoléon’s Kingdom of Italy. Cavour always displayed a monumental lack of interest in Naples and Sicily.
Although some of the world’s greatest nationalists have also been outsiders—Napoléon was Corsican, Joseph Stalin was Georgian, Adolf Hitler was Austrian—Cavour, unlike them, never so completely identified with his adopted country. He never became a supernationalist and always saw the Italian unification movement as the fulfillment of Piedmontese imperialism. For example, he came away from a meeting with the Italian patriot Daniele Manìn in Paris in 1856 with the impression that Manìn, although useful, was too preoccupied with “the idea of Italian unity and other such nonsense.” Cavour showed even greater lack of respect for other advocates of a unified Italy. In fact, he got along badly with anyone who was not under his thumb or who refused to accept his Piedmontese chauvinism. Consequently, he became a bitter enemy of Giuseppe Mazzini, whose republicanism so repelled him that he refused to allow Mazzini to enter Piedmont. Cavour once remarked that Mazzini should be arrested and executed without pity; he also did his utmost to destroy Garibaldi.
When Garibaldi’s volunteer army set sail for Sicily, Cavour ordered it intercepted and the soldiers arrested. Mack Smith explains that Cavour feared that such a radical enterprise would jeopardize relations with Napoléon III, upon whose support he was counting to protect Italy against Austria. Yet even before the Red Shirt expedition had left Genoa, Cavour had done his best to see that it would come to grief by providing it with rusty guns instead of the more modern weapons in the government’s arsenals. Nevertheless, when Garibaldi, to Cavour’s dismay, went from one success to another, Cavour claimed that he had supported him all along, all the while continuing his surreptitious efforts to undermine him. Garibaldi’s offense was particularly grave: He was Cavour’s competitor. Cavour’s shabby treatment of the great Italian national leader has been the subject of a previous book by Mack Smith (Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860: A Study in Political Conflict, 1954). In that volume, Mack Smith observed that Cavour was “sometimes treacherous, often uncertain, and always more or less hostile to Garibaldi,” but he explained that Cavour was forced into opposing Garibaldi because he believed him an enemy of parliamentary government and...
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